Insights from Experience, Excavation, and Reconstruction

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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

In September and October, I came across several projects in archaeology which help us understand early warfare. This week’s post will take us from China to Germany, Italy, and England and from the Bronze Age to the 18th century CE.

Figure 7 from Hermann et al. 2020 (see below). Left is a replica sword which has delivered a strike to the socket of a bronze spearhead, right is an original bronze sword

I will start with the Bronze Age (best age!) then move on to ages of other metals. A German-UK-Chinese team published the latest project trying to understand how Bronze Age swords were used. They examined damage to the edges of originals and then compared it to damage on replica swords by Neil Burridge after performing Andre Lignitzer’s six sword-and-buckler plays. I’d like to see more studies like this borrowing ideas from other martial arts like Shastar Vidiya to see which seem to work best with Bronze Age weapons from Europe. Fifteenth-century German fencing such as Andre Lignitzer’s plays has a lot of blade-on-blade contact and twisty actions while the blades are crossed, whereas other martial arts rely on the shield to defend or prefer simpler weapon-on-weapon actions. But I think that the evidence that swords from some periods often have marks characteristic of controlled parrying, whereas in other periods the edge damage is more random, is valuable. I am also glad that they experimented with common matchups like sword against spear, and not just the rare occasions when a sword was used against another warrior with a sword who was ready for the attack.

Bronze Age swords have better mechanical properties than most of the swords which were ever used in combat, even if they are not as good as quenched and tempered medium-carbon steel. Bronze Age societies deposited vast numbers of swords in graves, rivers, and swamps, so they could certainly wear some out in combat. The people who are obsessed with protecting the edge of their sword in combat tend to come from specific Japanese traditions, most martial arts accept that weapons and horses will be used up in combat.

  • Raphael Hermann, Andrea Dolfini, Rachel J. Crellin, Quanyu Wang, and Marion Uckelmann (2020) “Bronze Age Swordsmanship: New Insights from Experiments and Wear Analysis” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory vol. 27 (17 April 2020), pp. 1040–1083 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10816-020-09451-0
A double wooden gate in a plastered wall on a stone foundation
The Danube gate of Heuneburg / Pyrene (Hdt. 2.33)

At Heuneburg in Germany, a high-status grave of the sixth century BCE has been found near where another high-status grave was excavated in 2010. The excavators had it removed from the earth as a block so they can finish the excavation of the fragile wood and bone indoors at the workshop of the Provincial Office for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Ludwigsburg. You can learn about the Keltenblock 2.0 (1.0 was found in 2010) and see photos at http://www.heuneburg.de/2020/10/keltenblock-2-0/ and https://keltenblock.de/keltenblock-20/

Photo Copyright © 2020 LK Chen swords https://lkchensword.com/

The next link takes us to China where L.K. Chen has been working on reproductions of Chinese ferrous swords from the Han Dynasty to the Ming. His company does its best to reproduce swords in museums and private collections with some help from modern materials; because they are in China, they can even afford to forge the blades (most blades made in rich countries are ground from bars or sheet, because in these countries wages are expensive relative to tools and materials) and provide a scabbard. I don’t have access to these swords (no money) or data on originals (I want to finish writing up my current research projects before I launch any more that require rare books). But looking at the photos and measurements on their site, I see a mix of things that are familiar from ancient swords west of the Takalamakan Desert, and things which are very unusual. You can see the White Arc jian (two-edged sword), Royal Arsenal infantry dao (single-edged sabre), and Heavenly Horse cavalry dao on L.K. Chen’s website.

The length of these swords and sabres is not outside of the range that we see in western swords of the first millennium BCE, at roughly 70 to 110 cm. European swords from the same period also tend to have small handguards (although more like the guards on an early jian sword than a dao sabre). Warriors in Han China, like warriors in western lands like Persia and Iberia, usually fought with a shield on their left arm or in their left hand, and the shield protected the sword hand. But these swords are very narrow, usually 25-35 mm (1″ to 1.5″) wide at the base of the blade compared to 40-70 mm (1.75-3″) on most European swords from the Bronze Age to the fifteenth century CE. These swords also lack the swollen pommels on many European and Southwest Asian swords and daggers (I will talk about what those pommels teach us in another post). Instead, the early Chinese sabres have rings for pommels (and blades which are bent slightly forwards) like early Chinese knives.

Because of the narrow blades and minimal hilts, these are very light swords and sabres, about 2/3 or 3/4 as heavy as ancient European swords which filled the same roles. The long light blades suggest to me that the Han Dynasty had very good steel, more like what was common in 18th and 19th century Europe than what was common in ancient and medieval Europe. Swords made by people without access to good materials tend to be short and broad so they can do their job without bending or breaking. Also, in western Eurasia, as kings and cities took charge of warfare, swords tended to shrink. The very long European swords are found in places with few simple durable goods like 9th century BCE Macedonia not places with many refined durable goods like 1st century BCE Italy, whereas thousands of the very long Chinese sabres were stored in Han Dynasty arsenals ready to hand out to conscripts.

I look forward to metallurgical reports on early Chinese swords and sabres being published in European languages, and details about early Chinese swords becoming just as accessible in Europe and Canada as information about early European swords. Maybe one day I will have a chance to handle one of Mr. Chen’s swords and sabres!

Source of image unknown

Moving to the other end of Eurasia, the oldest known lorica segmentata has been found at Kalkriese, Germany where a Roman army was destroyed around the time that G. Quintius Varus lost his army in 9 CE. This wet site was discovered by metal detectors and it clearly has things to teach us. Unlike another famous find of ancient armour from Europe, this one survived transport to the museum where it can be examined with the latest sensors before it is removed from the earth. Whenever a well-preserved lorica segmentata is found, the archaeologists usually have to add a new type to their typology.

Last, Australian fencer Paul Wagner has a video on the pros and cons of three types of round strapped shield used in Britain in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries: the flat Scottish targe of the 17th century, the small pistol-proof Scottish target of the 18th century, and the domed rotella or round target. Paul is a thoughtful person and gives his perspective based on sparring, training, and have-a-go reproduction. We rarely hear a user’s perspective on infantry kit before the 19th century, because working-class people did not get to write books about things that constantly change (and in the 16th and 17th century, most of the books by infantry officers and gentlemen-adventurers in English are long on opinions, while most of the ones by level-headed, experienced soldiers are in Spanish, Italian, and Dutch). So if you don’t mind YouTube, check out his 15-minute video!

I find myself at a loss for words right now. Turning these ideas into a post took up more hours than I was expecting. I have a queue of posts scheduled every two weeks until the end of 2020, but after that we will see.

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5 thoughts on “Insights from Experience, Excavation, and Reconstruction

  1. russell1200 says:

    Bronze Age is best?

    The Copper Age was longer.

    And of course the much ignored Nickel Age has the benefit of being named after a metal that is rarely used as a weapon.

    More relevant, was there any obvious preference to stabbing or slashing with bronze weapons? How well does bronze slash through various linens and hide-type armor?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Canada still has 5 cent nickels although we don’t need them to keep the mines open between orders for battleship plate from London.

      “How were bronze swords used” is one of those things people have been arguing about since the 18th century (apparently some Swedish professors spent the war years arguing back and forth). Kate Anderson and some other people from Barry Molloy‘s group in Ireland have good papers on European Bronze Age weapons. The alloys which were used for weapons have pretty similar properties to un-heat-treated medium-carbon steel, and the average sword used in combat over the past 4000 years had properties more like low-carbon steel and was in the range of sizes that we see in the latest bronze swords. So proper bronze (either the European 90% Cu 10% Sn alloy or the Chinese alloy with about 20% tin and some lead to help it flow) might not be the ideal material but its more than good enough to do the job!

      Just like around the time we got really good at making steel, we switched most of our everyday blades from carbon to stainless steel. Stainless is hard to sharpen and brittle but its resistant to rust and it does the job.

      1. russell1200 says:

        I did find this.

        https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10816-020-09451-0

        Sword-wielding scientists show how ancient fighting techniques spread across Bronze Age Europe By Andrew CurryApr. 17, 2020 , 1:35 PM

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Yes, that is the piece by Hermann et al. which I talk about in this post. I am glad they had success publicizing their research!

          One of the troubles understanding how bronze swords were used has been that something like this British dirk would not be used like one of the last bronze swords which are the size and general shape of many of the ‘Celtic’ longswords! There were probably many different fighting styles across Bronze Age Europe or China, just like in Southeast Asia in the early 20th century.

          I think some people in Ireland experimented with the more diminutive, earlier swords but I can’t find that paper.

  2. How to Hold Bronze Swords | Book and Sword says:

    […] Insights from Experience, Excavation, and Reconstruction […]

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